Portage Railroad, Gallitzin, PA
If there had been a New Year's Eve ball drop in Times Square in 1799, the overwhelming sentiment as they changed over from the 18th to the 19th century would probably have been "good riddance." The past 50 years in North America had been non-stop hardship, conflict and violence. The new United States of America was ready to get on with the business of being a free and prosperous people in a land of unlimited opportunity. It wouldn't be all fun and games, of course. Little things like Muslim terrorists aka the Barbary Pirates and the War of 1812 would have to be dealt with soon. Later on it would be the Mexicans and then the Civil War. Overall though, the period 1800 to 1850 was the time in our history where hard work, ingenuity, guts and luck were unleashed. Those efforts produced achievements that rivaled anything the world has seen - before or since.
During this time frame, the western migration got started in earnest. Eastern states which had been frontier battlegrounds 20 or 30 years earlier were now downright civilized. More and more people were heading further and further west. That meant more and more goods had to be transported further and further away. Commerce went two ways with raw materials coming east and finished goods heading west. Efficient commercial transportation was a major challenge of that era.
The backbone of the early logistical system was the Conestoga wagon. Named for the Pennsylvania Dutch township in Lancaster county where they were invented, these "prairie schooners" could carry 12,000 pounds of cargo along the roads which were being built by all levels of government as fast as they could dig them.
Wagon transport was dependable and solid, but slow and expensive. By 1820, freight rates on a wagon were one dollar per 100 pounds per 100 miles. That means if you wanted to ship 10,000 pounds from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh - a distance of 400 miles - it would cost $400.00 and take four weeks. That's assuming that everything went right.
Aside from the cost and the time, wagons couldn't carry enough stuff to meet the insatiable demand for everything. A system had to be developed that would carry more cargo for less money and get it to market a lot faster. In fact, that system already existed. To get goods from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, it was cheaper and safer to put cargo on a ship, sail it down the east coast, into the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans, then up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers by steamboat to Pittsburgh - a distance of 4,000 miles. It met two of the criteria - it was cheaper and they could ship more, although it wasn't any faster. But they had the right idea - water.
Canal Building 101
New York and Pennsylvania had a problem. They both had major seaports (New York and Philadelphia), abundant resources, a good manufacturing base and inland ports (Buffalo and Pittsburgh) with easy access to the western U.S. via Lake Erie and the Ohio River. What they didn't have was an efficient transportation link crossing their own states from east to west to join those ports. If they wanted to stay competitive, the wagon trains had to go. Railroads weren't a viable option yet. They needed a water road across the state and that meant digging a canal.
The technical challenges associated with canal building are almost too numerous to list. They were the space shuttle programs of their day. At its core, a canal is a man-made ditch but it gets complicated real fast.
A canal boat is nothing more than floating wagon being towed from the side by mule teams at three or four miles per hour. The ditch has to be dug a certain way. To minimize water use and construction costs, it needs to be just wide enough to allow boats in both directions and just deep enough to float a fully loaded boat. The sides have to be as close to vertical as possible. This minimizes the angle on the tow rope by keeping the boat close to the bank. The more angle on the rope, the slower the speed. If the angle gets too large, it will pull the boat's bow around and broach it in the canal. Canals were dug to strict specifications and lined with clay and stone to help keep them that way.
The fundamental requirement for a canal system to work is that the water has to be still. If there's a current, upstream towing is slowed or even stopped. A downstream current presents control problems as the tow ropes go slack and the boat starts bobbing like a cork. Lastly, currents generate momentum. A current in a canal, with nothing to stop it or slow it down, could generate potentially destructive energy miles downstream.
How does a canal stay still? You have to break it into smaller sections to keep the water perfectly level and to prevent momentum from building up. This is done through locks and dams, which are also used to raise and lower boats over irregular terrain. Gaps like canyons are crossed using aqueducts, which are basically bridges with a canal on top instead of a road. A canal system also has to have its own water supply and transport system. It has to be able to add water during dry times and drain water in wet ones. That means dams, man-made lakes, culverts, drains, sluices, pipelines, aqueducts, tunnels, bridges and more plus the machinery to run them and the people to maintain them.
In addition to the canal, other infrastructure must be built to support it. If you dig a canal through a town, roads have to be re-routed or new ones built along with multiple bridges. Boats need docks and landings. There are warehouses for storage and passenger depots for tickets, refreshments and waiting. Boats and mules need a place to turn around. You can have the greatest canal in the world but if it's inconvenient and hard to use, it won't be much good.
Now imagine doing all that with hand tools, pencil drawings and manual calculations. You'll get some idea of the intimidating scope of these projects and why many people said it would never be done. New York Governor DeWitt Clinton thought otherwise.
New York had been thinking about a canal connecting the Hudson River and Lake Erie for years, but Governor Clinton was the driving force that made the it happen. After getting the New York legislature to allocate the then-incredible amount of seven million dollars, he broke ground for it on July 4, 1817 in Rome, NY. The press mocked his project as "Clinton's Ditch" and "Clinton's Folly" and his political enemies savaged him. He was voted out of office over it then voted back in three years later when it looked like the darned thing was actually going to happen.
It did happen. Governor Clinton cut the ribbon opening the Erie Canal on October 26, 1825 and rode the first boat. The canal ran 363 miles from the Hudson River in Albany, NY to the shore of Lake Erie in Buffalo, NY. It had 83 locks and 18 aqueducts. Along the route it navigated an elevation change of 565 feet. The canal channel was 40 feet wide and four feet deep with a 10 foot wide towpath on the north side. Fully loaded canal boats had a three and a half foot draft. Among the innovations developed during the project were a stump puller that ripped huge trees right out of the ground and hydraulic cement that dried underwater.
The Erie Canal was an immediate and unqualified success and paid off its debt in the first year of operation. In fact, it was the only canal in America at that time that made money. It gave the state a continuous water highway from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. A canal boat could carry 30 tons of cargo and the cost of transporting it dropped by as much as 90%. Travel time was cut by half or more. People and goods poured into New York. This led to the construction of feeder canals so that eventually, the whole system was over 500 miles. Within a decade, improvements in the canal enabled boats carrying up to 240 tons.
An entire new economy sprang up along the canal. Food, lodging, stores, merchants, teamsters, blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, artisans, professionals and families all came to areas where once there had been nothing. Almost every major city in New York has a connection to the Erie Canal. The Canal itself was a long, narrow and prosperous city. Even today, 80% of the people in upstate New York live within 25 miles of the Erie Canal.
DeWitt Clinton had the last laugh. Clinton's Folly made New York the busiest port, the richest city and the most influential state in America.
None of this went un-noticed in Pennsylvania, which watched this canal thing very closely. Traffic was being siphoned off from the ports of Philadelphia and Baltimore at an alarming rate as everything headed for New York. Their hand forced by these developments, Pennsylvania started building their own canal system in 1826. It was a joint government-business project with the objective of building a continuous waterway from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh - a distance of 395 miles. Despite the success of the Erie Canal, there was no guarantee of the same in Pennsylvania. They had much tougher problems to solve - longer distances, bigger obstacles, wider rivers, steeper slopes and higher elevations. The mountain ridges, valleys and rivers ran north-south. The terrain would be fighting them every step of the way.
It was called the Pennsylvania Main Line of Public Works and it cost over 16 million dollars. It was completed in 1834 although sections of it became operational well before that. Unlike the Erie Canal, it was not just a single canal across the state. When it was finished, it was a spider's web of public and private canals and railroads that connected the entire commonwealth. These different lines and segments were called divisions. The canal sections which connected Philadelphia and Pittsburgh were simply called Main Line. It consisted of the Juniata Division in the east and the Western Division in the west.
The Pennsylvania Canal system far exceeded the engineering achievements of the Erie Canal and was full of records and firsts. In its prime, it had almost 1,400 miles of canal - the most in the United States. There was a 1,140 foot aqueduct that crossed the Allegheny River just above Pittsburgh. The country's first railroad tunnel, the Staple Bend Tunnel near Johnstown, was drilled and blasted through 900 feet of solid rock. A second tunnel of over 800 feet went under Grant's Hill in Pittsburgh and linked with the Monongahela River. There were 168 locks. Elevation went from near sea level in Philadelphia to 2,430 feet on Cresson Mountain to 720 feet at the junction of the three rivers in Pittsburgh. These were all noteworthy achievements that exceeded anything that had been done before but the engineering crown jewel of the Main Line was the Allegheny Portage Railroad.
They say faith can move mountains, which is probably easier than building a canal over one. The Main Line was constructed from both ends towards the center. Once it got to Hollidaysburg in the east and Johnstown in the west, the easy part was over. Between those two terminals lay almost 40 miles of the most rugged mountains in the state - the Alleghenies. The project had reached its last, most critical and most difficult phase.
Steep, sparsely settled, heavily wooded, the Alleghenies were a formidable barrier. Several surveys and studies were completed while the rest of the canal was under construction. There was no way around the mountains and no gaps to slide through. One proposal called for tunneling but that went nowhere. The only way to get across with the technology of that time was to go up, over and down. Building locks and dams for that for that would have been impossible but the principle was sound - raise the boats vertically, have them cover some ground horizontally, then raise them some more. Keep repeating the cycle until you reach the top, then reverse the process going down the other side. To do this, instead of using water, locks and dams, fully loaded canal boats would go over the mountains using wheels, rails and cables on a one-of-a-kind railroad.
Three years of planning finally came up with a design that looked workable but had never been done before. The Allegheny Portage Railroad from Johnstown to Hollidaysburg would have 10 inclines sandwiched between 11 sections of flat to gently sloping connecting levels. Lengths and steepness varied with the terrain. Inclines 1-5 and levels 1-5 ran from Johnstown to the top of Cresson Mountain, the highest point on the route. Level 6 was on top of the mountain and would be the center of portage railroad activity. Inclines 6-10 and Levels 7-11 ran from Cresson Mountain to Hollidaysburg.
Each town would have a boat basin for the transition from water to rail and back. Additionally, Level 2 would have the Staple Bend Tunnel and a stone arch aqueduct over the Little Conemaugh River. Various bridges would also be built. The Huntingdon-Cambria Turnpike already wove through the mountains in this area and would have to be accommodated.
Railroad technology was still in the early stages. The crude locomotives of the day could pull loads on level or gently sloping ground but not up mountains. Still, they could make 15 mph - four times faster than mules. Engines and mule teams would be used on the levels, with the locomotives on the longer legs.
Each of the inclines was engineered as a funicular railway, more commonly known as a cable car, tram or incline. First used in the 15th century to negotiate steep terrain, funiculars have a power source in a fixed structure at the top of the incline. This power source is attached to cables that run in the center of parallel tracks and are hooked to the cars. Two cars are used. As one goes up, the other goes down, serving as counterweights to each other. The up car is regulating the speed of the down car. The down car is pulling the up car to the top. They pass each other at the halfway point. Using this system, the portage railroad was able to raise and lower separate 20,000 pound loads at the same time with a 35 HP steam engine - about the same power as a large riding lawn mower.
The counterweight system was not an absolute requirement for operations. If necessary, the cars could be pulled and lowered on their own with the steam engine and braking systems. However, the dual car method was more efficient, allowed higher loads and put much less stress on the engines. It was highly preferred but not always practical. The most important factor in the whole system was time, so things had to keep moving no matter what.
There were two engines at each incline but one was always kept as a backup. Additionally, there were backup safety systems to slow or stop runaway cars. At the top in the engine shed was a water brake, which slowed the play out of the cable with hydraulic pressure. The cables were played out and rolled up using large gears under the floor of the engine house. If one of them started turning too fast, water would flow into the brake automatically and exert pressure on the gear making it harder to turn and slowing the rate of descent.
The cables were a marvel all their own. They were made of heavy hemp rope four inches thick. All the cable ropes laid end to end would have stretched 12 miles. Their combined weight was 118,000 pounds - the equivalent of three fully loaded F-16 fighters.
The man responsible for making this happen was the chief engineer, Sylvester Welch. He had helped build the Erie Canal and several other Pennsylvania canals. It was a difficult and ambitious project but it had to get done. If it didn't, the entire project was for naught.
Construction started in the spring of 1831. The route as measured would be 36.5 miles long. The first order of business was to cut a 120 foot swath through the heavy forest for the entire length. Three years later, all was ready. The Allegheny Portage Railroad officially opened for business on March 18, 1834. The first canal boat hauled across the portage was named, appropriately enough, the "DeWitt Clinton."
The Allegheny Portage Railroad was a technical, logistical and engineering masterpiece that did exactly what it was supposed to do. It transported fully loaded canal boats with up to 21,000 pounds of cargo over the mountains on flatbed railroad cars along with their passengers. It cut the travel time from Philly to Pittsburgh from a 23 day wagon ride to a four day canal ride. The portage took up almost one day, with six hours being a typical transit time.
Although it never received the volume of traffic that the Erie Canal did, it did have one advantage - weather. The Erie Canal was frozen three to four months a year. Main Line stayed open two and sometimes three months longer. That's not to say the weather was great. The weather on Cresson Mountain can be downright hideous. But the canal was navigable for a substantially longer period than its northern competitor.
On any given day, the entire portage railroad was a beehive of activity. Some days, over 100 boats made the trip. A boat entered the boat basin and slid on to a railroad car that had been lowered down a ramp into the water. The car was pulled out and the process repeated until a max of three cars formed a portage train. If the boat was too big, the cargo was unloaded, put on the train and transferred to another boat at the end. The train was pulled by mules or an engine to the first incline. The engine moved to a siding, the hitching crew hooked up the hemp rope cable to the cars and they were soon on their way. As they went up, other cars were headed down. The engine pushed them to the basin, they were lowered down the put in ramp and the boats re-floated.
Elsewhere, steam engines in the incline sheds had to be stoked and pressure maintained - but not too much. Mechanical things broke down sometimes holding up the entire system. Cars, engines, mules and boats had to be constantly hooked and unhooked. Cables had to be replaced. Sleepers, cross ties and rails had to be manhandled into position. People and animals had to be fed. There was no time to waste. It was hard dangerous work. Passengers and crew were both at risk. There were injuries and deaths on a weekly basis.
Despite these challenges, the Allegheny Portage Railroad soldiered on, constantly improving its system and capabilities. New track was laid and more of it. Hemp cables were replaced by steel ones. Lumber cross ties replaced sleepers. Sectional canal boats allowed larger boats to be taken apart while still loaded and put on to flat cars, totally eliminating the need for cargo transfer. More locomotives were procured for the levels to replace the mules. These engines could move their loads at up to 15mph. But even with all this, the system was on borrowed time.
Railroad technology overall was growing by leaps and bounds. The APRR had used inclines because railroad engines couldn't haul loads up steep grades. Within a decade, they could. Engineers started going around mountains instead of over them and tacking up steep slopes with switchbacks. Tunnel construction was also advancing, giving other route options. The new Holy Grail of transportation was a continuous rail link across the state.
In 1840 - after only six years of operation - Pennsylvania started conducting studies to build a new portage railroad that would eliminate the inclines and be all rail. Construction of a new portage started in 1850. The state spent an enormous amount of money on it, in addition to losing money on the entire canal system.
It was too little too late. There was no stopping progress or the new Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), commonly called the "Pennsy." A publicly traded company chartered in Philadelphia in 1846, its money, engineers and work force overwhelmed the state's effort. By 1854, they had a cross-state rail link that would go from Philly to Pittsburgh in 13 hours. The heyday of the canal boats was over. The boats that had put the wagon trains out of business were now themselves obsolete.
The Main Line System of Public Works lost money every year it was in operation, but at least it was making a contribution to the overall economy. Now it became a fiscal black hole as traffic dwindled away, sticking the taxpayers with the bill. It was shut down in 1854 when the PRR completed its all-rail link. The entire system had cost the state 16 million dollars. The Pennsy bought it in 1857 for five million and dismantled it. Nevertheless, the Main Line was a major gateway to the west for 20 years and brought prosperity to those who lived and worked in its path. The Allegheny Portage Railroad was a key part of that. In addition to being the critical link in the state system, it spurred the development of new technology that eventually led to its own demise.
As for the Erie Canal, it fared much better. It is still in use today as part of the New York State Canal System and has been widened, deepened, re-routed and improved many times. Although primarily a multi-use recreational system, it does see several hundred thousand tons of cargo each year and that number is rising. As gas prices have gone up, so has the use of the canal for commercial traffic. A canal barge can carry the freight of 100 eighteen-wheelers and gets 10 times the mileage. To this day, the Erie Canal remains the most efficient way to get cargo from the east coast to the upper midwest and beyond.
Governor DeWitt Clinton, the man who made it all happen, died in office on February 11, 1828 - a little over two years after the ribbon cutting. He was 58 and is buried in Brooklyn, NY.
I am a bit embarrassed to admit this. I was born and raised not far from Cresson Mountain, graduated from nearby Indiana University of Pennsylvania and I never heard of the Allegheny Portage Railroad until the summer of 2010. The geo-spouse and I were visiting and geocaching at the Johnstown Flood Memorial and stumbled upon the APRR, so we drove over and checked it out.
It is a true gem in the wild. The 1,249 acre site has a modern visitors center sitting near the summit of Cresson Mountain about a quarter mile away from the top of Incline #6. The engine shed has been rebuilt and the original workings have been excavated and restored. Tracks have been restored and the incline itself is cleared and maintained. You can see all the way down to the Skew Arch Bridge, which is worth a visit. You can walk down the incline or drive to it. The Lemon House has also been completely restored and can be toured. The whole area looks like it's ready for passengers and cargo to come rolling in.
Here are a few other cool things to see and do (text continues below):
There's year round outdoor activity throughout the Allegheny Portage Railroad site. Hiking and mountain biking in the summer. Cross country skiing and snowshoeing in the winter.
Also be sure to check out the Johnstown Flood National Memorial and the Johnstown Flood Museum. There's a direct link between the portage railroad and the flood. The South Fork Dam that broke was originally built as a water supply for the APRR. When the system was sold, the dam fell into disrepair and finally collapsed over 30 years later. During the disaster, a landmark called the Stone Bridge withstood the flood waters and created a dam of debris that caught fire and burned for days. The bridge was originally an aqueduct for the APRR. It's replacement is still there, used as a railroad bridge.
The Allegheny Portage Railroad and the Johnstown Flood Disaster can both be explored through an excellent project called The Path of the Flood Trail. Jointly developed by the National Park Service, Cambria County and the City of Johnstown, it can be hiked, biked or driven. It will take you to some very scenic and memorable places. It's what KidsRN and I were doing when we stumbled into the APRR.
And geocaching? There's probably 50 of them with five miles of the visitors center. Many of them are on or near historical places although there's none on the federal grounds. Horseshoe Curve has a bunch and the APRR grounds are surrounded by them.
As for the canal system itself, there's not much left. However, a number of communities have restored portions of the canal for recreation and tourism. The Pennsylvania Canal Society has a list of them with brief summaries of each.
The GPS coordinates of the Visitors' Center for the Allegheny Portage Railroad Historical Site are N40.457331 W78.549268. The GPS coordinates for the Staple Bend Tunnel trailhead and parking are N40.376274 W78.835642. Click on the coordinates for an interactive Google map. Here's a link to their Facebook page.
History is everywhere in Pennsylvania. All you have to do is drive down a country road and you'll find stuff. The Allegheny Portage Railroad was a classic Off The Beaten Path discovery. We hope you find it as interesting as we did.
Semper Fi.......out here.......Alpha6